IFC Blog

The Johannes Brahms you might not have known about

The Johannes Brahms you might not have known about

The Johannes Brahms you might not have known about

I first became acquainted with Brahms, as many of us do, as a child. Whether it was a musical mobile, 8-track tape of children’s songs, or music box, I don’t remember — but his Guten Abend, gute Nacht was the first lullaby I’d ever heard, and became synonymous with that word. I didn’t know then, as I do now, that this enigmatic man was also a pivotal figure in one of the most infamous scandals in music history.

This Brahms-Schumann love triangle came to my knowledge only recently — over late-night instant messaging with the IFC’s beloved pianist, Francesca Lee. Eventually, as it happens when girls talk, the conversation turned to boys — well, one boy in particular, Johannes Brahms, and why his Lieder seem to be so steeped in heartbreak and loss.

“You know he loved Clara, right?” she asked.

“Did he?”

“He loved her so much that he remained by her side after Robert Schumann died and he never married anyone else.”


Over the rest of that conversation and some Googling, the story unravelled. Clara Schumann was already married with children and in her thirties when she met the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, and she was already one half of a musical power couple along with her husband Robert. Robert and Clara, both famous enough in their own right, were among Brahms’ greatest admirers. And the feeling was mutual. Aside from their musical collaborations, Brahms and the Schumanns became deep friends; through Robert’s troubled life, Johannes was there for the family. When Robert attempted suicide and was institutionalised in a sanatorium in February 1854 (Clara was pregnant with their eighth child at the time) Johannes rushed to Düsseldorf to help them, living over their apartment and setting aside his music temporarily to be there for Clara. After Robert’s death, Clara never married again — and Johannes never married at all, perhaps committing his heart and soul to her (although his body was taken care of with his much talked-about taste for prostitutes).

“To me, Brahms will always be that sensitive little boy,” Francesca had said.

Sensitive little boy?

I thought back about my own perceptions of Brahms. My first choral experience of him was two years ago; it was, in fact, my first choral experience ever. Nänie with its Romantic hyperbole that reminded me of Shelley’s Adonais. Mainacht — Byronic and lyrical. But the stories I was hearing now, the articles I was reading and the images I was seeing were not of the portly, whiskered, white-bearded composer who’d always seemed so looming and inaccessible. This was a handsome young man with quiet, gentle eyes, sensitive and fiercely talented. The kind of boy with whom it would be only too easy to fall in love — as, perhaps, Clara did.

History has not made it clear whether they were lovers or not — there are letters, a joint holiday and a lifelong friendship — but perhaps, in some ways, it was a Platonic ideal.

It’s very likely that Brahms could have just done the sensible thing, forgetting about Clara and moving on with his life. But if he (or, for that matter, any great artist) had done that, we may never have experienced that deep emotion that lives intensely under succinct phrasing and precisely-constructed harmonies in Erlaube mir. Maybe suffering is the root of all art and if there were no sorrow, there would be no great music.

So it’s entirely possible that we’re singing part of Brahms’ heartbreak, part of the sorrow that he never was able to let go (and maybe he didn’t want to let go). If that’s the case, perhaps the longing that he held on to so dearly is one that we should hold on to as well.

The views in this post are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Festival Chorus (Singapore).